restricted access 12. Sociological and Interdisciplinary Adventures: A Personal Odyssey (2000)
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258 Every academic discipline, including those in the behavioral and social sciences,* presents a number of tensions that its practitioners must resolve, if only implicitly and by indecision. Three of these tensions are particularly salient for this essay: • What should be the disciplinary scope of one’s work—narrow, if one carves out a specialization or subdiscipline, or broad, if one takes an interest in a wide range of subject matters or general issues facing the discipline? 12 Sociological and Interdisciplinary Adventures a personal odyssey (2000) From American Sociologist 31, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 5–33. * This distinction has worked its way firmly into the academic and organizational language of the scientific establishment, but it is difficult to be precise and consistent in seeking definitions . The term behavioral sciences was invented in the 1950s, largely at the initiative of the Ford Foundation. It would now include most of psychology and psychiatry, parts of the biological sciences (e.g., behavioral biology, behavioral neuroscience), and small parts of microeconomics , political science (e.g., voting behavior), and sociology (small-group research). The term social sciences would include most of anthropology, economics, political science, and sociology, as well as parts of many other fields—geography, law, education, and organizational studies, for example. History is part social sciences, part humanities. But it should be emphasized that no set of definitions is consistent or commands consensus. s o c i o l o g i c a l a d v e n t u r e s 259 • How should one shift—or not shift—the focus and scope of one’s line of substantive research interests over a professional career? • How much, and in what ways, should one step beyond the boundaries of one’s discipline and engage in interdisciplinary endeavor? Every academic professional who teaches and conducts research can be described in relation to where he or she lies on these dimensions of narrowness and breadth. Where one lies, moreover, is not a career-neutral matter. In the behavioral and social sciences, both lore and institutional reality suggest that career success is closely linked to success within a discipline. The term interdisciplinary has a generally positive ring, and periodic intellectual movements have promoted interdisciplinarity (Klein 1990), but the disciplines are still dominant. Our doctoral training programs and professional titles are disciplinary. Department chairs advise young scholars to become recognized in their disciplines and discipline-based departments. Interdisciplinary teaching programs in colleges and universities are difficult to fund within departmentally dominated budgetary procedures, and they are often the first to be cut back in difficult budgetary times. Disciplinary associations award most of the prizes. Interdisciplinary activity appears to be a luxury afforded to scholars already established in their disciplines or a risk to be taken by junior ones. As I hope to show in this essay, however, significant career recognition can result from interdisciplinary activity as well. To clarify at the beginning: I mean by interdisciplinary a loosely coupled range of activities that reach outside disciplinary boundaries (as far as these may be identifiable): • Importing or exporting concepts, methods, and approaches across disciplinary boundaries (“borrowing” or “imperialism,” depending on one’s point of view); an example would be the application of rationalchoice theory (a staple of economic analysis) to the behavior of voters and legislators (political science) • Bringing different disciplinary perspectives to bear on the understanding of an empirical or theoretical problem (for example, the simultaneous study of the economic, political, and social bases of revolutions) • Hybridization, or the creation of a new subfield out of several disciplines (e.g., child development, public policy) 260 s o m e r e c e n t r e f l e c t i o n s • Synthetic theoretical activity (as an example, I note below the efforts of Talcott Parsons and me to synthesize economic theory and certain strands of sociological theory) • Theoretical analogies (metatheory), or the effort to find a common language and common properties of many theories; an example would be work in the tradition of “general systems theory” (Smelser 2001) For me, “interdisciplinary” work also includes applied organizational and institutional activities undertaken to solve social problems (e.g., drug addiction) from an interdisciplinary point of view, or to promote the general position and interests of the several behavioral and social sciences. I will give illustrations of all these meanings throughout the essay. I do not hold any special illusions about the value of interdisciplinary activity...